Paws for a mitzvah: Teens jump-start program to benefit assistance dog nonprofit

After two middle school students raised more than $1,000 each for Canine Companions for Independence, the proverbial light bulb clicked above Daniel Y. Harris’ head.

“We were so inspired by the two students, Shai Tabb and Daniel Finnie, that we turned their project into a national fundraising and outreach initiative called the Mitzvah Project,” says Harris, CCI’s Northwest regional director for development. “We now target b’nai mitzvah students to encourage social action and exemplify the notion of tikkun olam.”

Shai Tabb, currently a ninth-grader at Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco, approached CCI two years ago for her yearlong tzedakah project at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School in Foster City.

“I wanted to help people and I love animals,” says Shai, 14, “so I wanted something that incorporated both [elements].”

Canine Companions for Independence trains assistance dogs for the disabled.

So under the direction of her seventh-grade humanities teacher, Amy Kurzeka, Shai chose CCI, which was founded in Santa Rosa in 1975 and now has five regional offices throughout the country.

CCI trains four kinds of assistance dogs — companion, service, hearing and facility dogs — to help people with physical disabilities. Over 3,000 people have graduated from the CCI program.

Helping the graduates, people with varying physical disabilities, was what motivated Daniel Finnie last year when he raised nearly $1,100 for CCI.

“It was meaningful to know that I helped out so many people in need of service dogs,” says Daniel, 13, an eighth-grader at Wornick Day School. “I still keep in touch with CCI. I just sent them a check from my bar mitzvah money. And I went to one of the graduation ceremonies.”

In addition to fundraising and learning about CCI, the Mitzvah Project enabled both students to acquire other real-world skills.

“I learned how to organize. I learned phone skills,” says Shai, who had to research three nonprofits before choosing one group to sponsor for an entire year. “I learned how to interview and how to judge nonprofits. I also learned leadership skills and how to work things out with my class,” because each student had to lobby for at least $1,000 of the total pool of dollars their classes raised.

Added Daniel, “I learned how important it is to give tzedakah. People who have more should give more, because it really helps.”

Daniel’s class of 24 seventh-graders raised more than $30,000 in 2008 and spent a lot of time discussing how to allocate the funds.

Harris, the former executive director at the Jewish Community Center, Sonoma County, is glad the students chose CCI. “The partnership between Wornick got this Mitzvah Project going so it is now a national program at every one of our centers,” he said.

“[Harris] took the ideas from our project and created an avenue to tie in Jewish values with different agencies,” said Kurzeka, who is now a small business owner. “We provide the stepping stone, and my two students had a great time.”

Shai was convinced immediately that CCI was the right group for her. “The dedication and passion of everyone at CCI reassured me that I’d picked the right organization for my mitzvah,” she said. “It was definitely a highlight of my middle school experience.”

The money that she and Daniel helped generate provided canine assistance to former ski racer Muffy Davis. At age 16, Davis veered off-course while skiing and crashed into two trees at 55 mph, crushing her back.

With the help of her canine companion, Davis can now get in and out of her wheelchair without human assistance.

“Canine companions help people with simple tasks, such as using pencils, opening closet doors, hearing cell phones, or picnicking in the park,” Harris said. “CCI empowers graduates to overcome physical, psychological and social barriers, enabling them to lead more independent and satisfying lives.”

For more information about the Canine Companions for Independence Mitzvah Project, contact Daniel Y. Harris, or (707) 577-1781. For information about CCI, visit